Around the year 30 A.D., a Jewish rabbi and convicted criminal whose name is today typically rendered in English as Jesus was executed by crucifixion just outside of Jerusalem by the Roman government.

Roughly a month and a half later his small band of scattered and demoralized followers emerged from hiding to declare in the public squares and in the synagogues that Jesus had risen from the dead and was the unique Son of God and savior of the human race. His death and accompanying resurrection from the grave, they claimed, was an opportunity provided by a loving God to humanity to reconcile themselves with Him and be saved from their sins and from death - something foretold, they said, in numerous passages of the Hebrew Bible.

As might be imagined this aroused great controversy that sometimes erupted into violence. As the number of Gentile converts increased "the Way" became a religion of its own that, unlike that of the Jews, had no legal protection under Roman law. In the Roman Empire, church and state were one. Its religious rites, observances, and festivals were held on behalf of the entire community and the entire community was expected to participate either directly or through financial support. Furthermore, many Emperors declared themselves to be living gods and demanded worship and sacrifice at their statues by all subjects. Followers of Jesus refused, which led the Pagans to conclude that they were both atheistic and anti-social. Dark rumors spread about this new and mysterious cult, and being a follower quickly became a crime punishable by death -- all of the major figures in the New Testament were lynched or publicly executed within forty years of Jesus' death.

And yet, three hundred years later, this was the official religion of the Roman Empire, and its followers were called Christians.

As a religion, Christianity is divided into three main bodies: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Most Christian sects can be grouped under one of these. The division of Christianity into what would become the Catholic and Orthodox churches began with the administrative separation of the Roman Empire into a Western and an Eastern Empire, widened over the centuries due to theological, ecclesiastical, and political disputes, and culminated in 1054.

In the 1500s a Reformation movement began in Europe to counter abuses and corruption within the Catholic church. This led to many churches breaking away into what would be called Protestant denominations, which have a wide variety of beliefs and practices.

Central to becoming a Christian in any of these traditions is a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, a sincere commitment to changing one's life, and baptism -- though different Christian bodies place different emphasis on each of these. The primary source of Christian teachings is the Bible, a collection of sacred writings that is divided into two main sections:

  • The Old Testament, which describes God's dealings with humanity (especially the people of Israel) up until around 420 B.C.
  • The New Testament, which consists of four gospels relating Jesus' life, public ministry, death, and resurrection, composed (according to most scholars) between 60-125 A.D.; the book of Acts which describes the activities of Jesus' followers after his death; many letters from the Apostles and their own disciples to Christian churches providing general guidance and addressing specific issues those congregations faced (the earliest dated at around A.D. 50); and an apocalypse (a genre of prophetic Jewish writing).

Certain other Old Testament writings that were deemed to not be authoritative by later rabbinical scholars may or may not be included in a given Bible. These writings are often designated Apocrypha by Protestants; Catholics accept them as part of the canon.

Interpretations of and elaborations on these writings make up the teachings of the individual traditions. Many adherents consider these to be the result of guidance by the Holy Spirit and may give them equal authority to what is written in the Bible.

What do Christians believe? With a caveat that one or two key words have been the subject of everything from debate to schism to holy war over the centuries, the Nicene Creed provides a good summing-up of orthodox Christian belief. At its core:

  • There is only one God, eternal and uncreated, the source of all that is.
  • Though One, God's nature is also that of three persons, which in human terms may be described as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the doctrine of the Trinity and it is perhaps the most subtle and difficult to grasp. One may compare the Trinity to water, which can be ice, vapor, and liquid but is still water -- only that's not really it. Or one may compare it to a man who is at once a son to his parents, a father to his children, and a husband to his wife -- only that's not it either (and both of these examples fall into the heresy known as Modalism). The Athanasian Creed focuses on the Trinity and reads as cryptically and paradoxically as anything in the Tao Te Ching. But in some way that ultimately defies human language this is believed to be so, and that these three Persons co-exist throughout eternity in a relationship of inexpressibly powerful love.
  • God created humanity in His image -- not to say that God looks like us but that we are like God in that we can reason, create, love, and make free choices. (The word "reason" implies not only rational thought but also imagination and intuition.)
  • Humanity is no longer in harmony with God, Creation, and each other because it has used its free choice wrongly. Various schools of thought have explained this in different ways. Some have suggested that each of us is born with a clean slate but we do not make the right choices, while others believe that human nature is fundamentally broken and now we cannot make the right choices. There is also the fact that considered as a people, none of our hands are clean. From a cosmic perspective the entire human race is at any given moment engaged in neglecting, starving, abandoning, abusing, exploiting, and killing its own members.
  • Out of love for us, God has has acted several times in the arena of human history to bring us back to Him, as described in the Old and New Testaments. The culmination of this divine plan for rescue is the Incarnation: the startling notion that the eternal, almighty ruler of the universe chose to be born fully human, to fight his way amid much blood and screaming out of the birth canal like the rest of us and live life in this world as we do, with all its joys and sorrows. Even more startling, the means by which God and humanity are reconciled would involve the suffering and death of the Son, and his bodily resurrection on the third day afterward.
  • After Jesus' ascension, the Holy Spirit was sent to guide the people of God and to act through them. When the power of God breaks through into the world now, whether it's something as dramatic as a sudden healing of an illness or as small and simple as a canned food drive, it is considered to be the work of the Spirit.
  • Christianity has a strong eschatological component, which simply means that it looks to an eventual end of things as they are. Christ will return to Earth openly as the Son of God. There will be a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and a new Creation. This bit is difficult to talk about, because while I think we would all like to see the bastards of the world finally get their just desserts, most of us are self-aware enough to admit that when it comes down to it, we may be the bastards. This is why the Incarnation and the Cruxifixion are so important to Christians; while it is essential that we do our best to live according to Christ's teachings, God's mercy extends forgiveness to us when we inevitably screw them up.

What distinguishes Christianity from other religions past and present? For one thing, unlike most it is a historical religion. Events described in its holy book are not thought to take place in a mythical dreamtime or prehistory, in an otherwordly realm of heroes: they are tied to specific individuals, times, and places - even in the unlikely case of Adam, whose family tree is scrupulously preserved. (As an example, contrast the Gospels' presentation of Jesus with its context of geneaologies, place names, and world events, with the tales of the Egyptian god Osiris, who in mythology is also said to have died and been reborn.)

It also combines a strong ethical system with a devotion to God and a belief in eternal life through God's own initiative, not human effort. Compare Judaism, where devotion to God is combined with a strong structure of ethics and ritual but the afterlife is not a focus; Hinduism, where one may ascend through successive levels of being via the accumulation of karma through good deeds; Islam, where the keeping of God's law is necessary and sufficient to achieve eternal life in Paradise; and Buddhism, where the gods do not play a part in one's salvation, and eternal life (in the form of the cycle of reincarnation) is something to be saved from through the practice of proper thought and behavior.

(As you may be able to tell from the previous paragraph, Christians do not necessarily view their religion as the exclusive bearer of truth in the world; only that on those points where Christianity and another religion disagree, the Christian position is naturally believed to be the correct one.)

Christianity is also unusual in that it centers on a person rather than a path. Other major religious figures throughout history such as Confucius, Buddha, and Mohammed presented their disciples with a Way to follow that would lead to the desired end, whether it be social harmony, enlightenment, or God. Jesus, however, taught that he is the Way to God. Salvation comes not through following a set of teachings but through his sacrifice on the Cross. The role of the believer is to enter into a relationship of faith and trust in him, in which following his teachings then plays a part.

Christian life and ethics, then, grows out of the knowledge of one's self as a beloved child of God, the increasing knowledge of God through the person of Jesus Christ, and the recognition of Christ in others.

Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E. Brown
A History of Heresy by David Christie-Murray
Pagans and Christians by Robin Lane Fox
The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 edition (specifically the Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism)
A number of Web sites devoted to the issues separating the Orthodox and Catholic churches, which I foolishly did not write down.
Books and books and books. Plus church.